The Role of Exercise in Breast Cancer Prevention and Treatment
When it comes to risk factors for breast cancer, there’s a lot that we cannot change. Family history, age at our first period, pregnancy, and breastfeeding are some examples of things beyond our control. However, one factor of our health that we have a choice of is exercise. Current research supports the beneficial role that physical activity and exercise play in reducing the risk for developing breast cancer and preventing or attenuating the disease.
While there is some research on the primary preventive benefits of exercise on breast cancer (i.e. exercise helping to make sure you don’t get BC in the first place), there is substantial research on the secondary preventative abilities (i.e. you had breast cancer, and now you want to make sure you don’t get a recurrence).
Why is exercise such a great idea?
- Women who are going through breast cancer treatments have a higher tendency to develop osteoporosis, decreased bone mineral density (osteopenia), decreased muscle strength and tend to have decreased cardiovascular fitness. Exercise, both in the form of strength and cardiovascular training, can help with all the above. This is important, because loss of muscle mass has been found to be associated with higher mortality and decreased quality of life, mostly because of pain and fatigue.
- If you were not physically active prior to your diagnosis, fear not: it is not too late. A clinical study published in the medical journal of Breast Cancer Research looked at the benefits of exercise in women who were previously physically inactive and exercised less than 1hour per week on average. When these women were assigned a moderate exercise regimen for three hours per week for 16 weeks, all the above health parameters improved. We strongly recommend that you speak with your doctor before starting any kind of exercise routine!
- Aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, and swimming can help with cancer related fatigue, but it’s suggested that you start slow. First, make sure your doctor approves of you exercising, and ask him what kind of exercises are beneficial for you, along with your heart rate limit. There are many ways to start moving, including simply by walking to the mailbox and back a couple of times. If you have neuropathy and are worried about falling, you may also want to consider a stationary bike- recumbent bikes are great, and there are even some portable ones you can use while sitting in a chair.
- Exercise might even help with one of the peskier side effects of chemotherapy: the dreaded brain fog. Unfortunately, research hasn’t shown to be 100% accurate on this, but there is plenty of evidence that cardiovascular exercise combined with resistance training improves cognition in adults, so it is worth considering!
Overall, there is plenty of evidence that exercise after breast cancer treatments is safe and beneficial, but only a minority of women achieve the same levels of physical activity they had before their diagnosis. A common reason for this is that women lack guidance on how to get back into exercise safely and have concerns regarding the safety of exercising. But, there is help. Many women are screened by physical therapists during their active treatments, specifically after undergoing mastectomy (more on the shoulder issues surrounding mastectomies here), but few are referred to ongoing therapy after their treatments conclude.
There are physical and occupational therapists who are specifically certified in breast cancer rehabilitation. Ask your doctor if you would benefit from a referral. There are also rehabilitation doctors, physiatrists, who focus on the medical rehabilitation of cancer survivors. Many large cancer centers are affiliated with a rehabilitation team of doctors and therapists, and you can ask your medical provider team for a referral, when they deem this to be safe for you.